For the Michigan women’s basketball team, success hasn’t always been a given. Struggling as a program to find their footing in a women’s basketball world dominated by a few teams, Michigan has only recently rewritten their narrative. The team may have made headlines for their recent success, yet there is much more to their story.
And it deserves to be told.
“This program has not won many things before,” Abbie Telgenhof, Assistant Sports Editor and Women’s Basketball Beat Writer for The Michigan Daily, said. “They won the WNIT in 2017, but aside from that, they’ve only just recently become an NCAA contender every year, and that’s really attributed to Kim Barnes Arico’s building of the program.”
The story begins in 1972, with the passage of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex at any educational institution that receives federal funds. The law requires “proportionate expenditures and opportunities in athletic programs for women, especially in relation to access to facilities, equipment, scheduling, travel funds, coaches, and scholarships.” Prior to the passage of Title IX, women could only participate in club sports sponsored by the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA), a student-run organization that offered athletic activities and competitions for women at the University of Michigan. In the late 1960s, the WAA was disbanded, and women’s club sports — including basketball — came under the supervision of the Michigan Sports Club Federation in 1970-71, which sought to unite men’s and women’s club sports teams. The passage of Title IX and activism from women athletes at Michigan forced President Robben Fleming to take action. In 1973, he established the Committee to Study Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (dubbed the “Burns Committee”), “to investigate the development of women’s intercollegiate (varsity) sports.”
In November 1973, the University of Michigan officially created six women’s varsity sports teams: tennis, basketball, swimming and diving, synchronized swimming, volleyball and field hockey.
“The team may have made headlines for their recent success, yet there is much more to their story.“
In their first season, the Wolverines were coached under Vic Katch, an assistant professor of physical education at the University and former college basketball player. Their inaugural record was 3-8, and the team played their first game on January 20, 1974, against Michigan State, losing 73-35.
Until the 1976-77 season, there was no form of conference competition for Michigan to participate in. Even then, the team was not officially sanctioned by the Big Ten until 1982-83. The first 15 years for this program were difficult, with only two winning seasons between 1974 and 1989.
Under coach Bud VanDeWege, things started to look up. The team earned their first postseason appearance in 1990, with a record of 20-10 in the regular season. Despite only making it to the second round in the NCAA tournament, this success gave the Wolverines hope. However, after this first NCAA appearance, the program experienced a drought, with seven consecutive losing seasons from 1991 until 1998.
With the entrance of a new head coach, Sue Guevara, Michigan appeared in five back-to-back post-season tournaments, either NCAA or WNIT. The Wolverines’ best performance in this era tied the previous record, making it to the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2001. However, Michigan then failed to make any post-season appearances again until 2008.
During the 2007-08 season, the Wolverines, alongside Coach Kevin Borseth, made it all the way to the WNIT quarterfinals, beating their previous record in the WNIT tournament. Borseth coached the team to three straight postseason appearances between 2010 and 2012, making it all the way to the WNIT semifinals. Yet, up to this point, the women’s basketball team rarely seemed to align with the University of Michigan’s attitude of athletic accomplishment, experiencing a mix of a few fairly exciting postseason performances and many unsuccessful seasons.
Under current coach Kim Barnes Arico, the team has found their footing, reaching either postseason tournament every single year since she began in the 2012-13 season. In 2016-17, the Wolverines won the WNIT tournament — the first postseason championship win in program history. Katelynn Flaherty was an essential part of this team. She currently holds the school record for scoring, with 2,776 career points, more than any other Michigan basketball player in history, man or woman. She was a three-time All-Big Ten first team and three-time WBCA All-America honorable mention.
During the 2016-17 season, the team also set the program record for highest attendance during a game against Michigan State. The attendance was announced at 12,707, the first home sellout in program history, more than doubling the previous record of 5,991.
In addition, Barnes Arico became the winningest coach in program history during this season. Since then, the team has continued to shine, making the NCAA second round in both 2018 and 2019, and setting the program record by advancing to the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2021.
This year, Michigan has continued to make their mark. Throughout the 2021-22 season, the women have received the highest AP poll ranking in team history. They secured the team’s first and second top-5 wins, beating then-No. 5 Baylor in December and then-No. 5 Indiana in January. The Wolverines earned the No. 3 seed, the highest seed ever for the NCAA tournament in program history, resulting in the hosting of first and second-round games.
When talking about this team, it’s impossible to ignore the current star player, Naz Hillmon. She is the first player in program history to earn All-American honors and was the 2021 Big Ten Player of the Year. In addition, she’s also won three gold medals with USA Basketball. However, her on-court successes are not the only things that make her a notable athlete at Michigan.
“Naz Hillmon was very vocal about Black Lives Matter,” Telgenhof said. “The way that she interacts with press and her teammates in press conferences [shows] she’s a very humble player and very genuine. She’s been pretty vocal about the discrepancies between the men’s and women’s tournaments in the past few years, especially last year.”
In addition to her advocacy, Hillmon is a part of the Big Ten Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition. While Hillmon has been the most outspoken, using the attention she gets from her performance to speak out about important issues, she is not the only one. Several Michigan players kneel during the national anthem, showing solidarity with the fight for racial equity. All the players also wear warm up shirts with different messages, including “Unity” and “No Justice, No Peace.” Furthermore, Barnes Arico is also a member of the Big Ten Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition, alongside Hillmon.
As with other women’s collegiate sports teams, the basketball team at Michigan has struggled with attention and respect. However, this team is important. Not just because of their recent success, but because of the journey they took to get here.
“What Kim Barnes Arico has done for this program is just amazing,” Telgenhof said. “Whatever this team does in the tournament isn’t indicative of what they’ve done throughout their careers here at Michigan, especially the senior class. They’ve put Michigan women’s basketball on the map and they’ve really made a difference in the women’s basketball community.”
Staff Photographer Sydney Hastings-Wilkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Senior Multimedia Editor Emma Mati contributed to this article.
Special thanks to Assistant Sports Editor and Women’s Basketball Beat Writer Abbie Telgenhof.